Assad drops heavy bomb on Aleppo
by Michael Wilner, jpost.com, Dec. 18, 2013
Russian envoy to UN says Washington withheld information from international body about Syrian chemical weapons for months.
WASHINGTON – At least 18 children, two of their teachers and over 100 civilians are dead after Syrian Air Force helicopters peppered Aleppo with barrel bombs over the last three days.
The assault and the death toll, claimed by the Syrian National Coalition of opposition forces, have been supported by visual evidence that spread through social media outlets after the dust settled from the series of strikes.
Children were rushed from the Tayba primary school in the Al-Inzarat suburb of Aleppo to the over-packed, under-sourced, badly damaged local hospital, as residents of nearby As-Sakhour pried their neighbors from a collapsed residential building. The main square of Al-Marjeh has reportedly been destroyed. A vegetables market on Al-Villat Street in As-Sakhour was decimated.
The barrel bomb is a commonly used weapon in the arsenal of Syrian president Bashar Assad.
The aptly named devices are crudely made, with trinitrotoluene (TNT) or other explosives stuffed into cylinders or oil barrels and dropped out of the back of helicopters.
The US Department of State could not confirm the bombing of the school, but has strongly condemned the use of barrel bombs in recent days and was able to confirm the killing of “dozens, including women and children.”
“Unfortunately this is not the first time these barrel bombs have been used against innocent civilians,” Dina Badawy, a State Department spokeswoman, told The Jerusalem Post on Tuesday.
“And regime air raids in and around Aleppo have continued unabated.”
“These bombs – and the explosive materials contained within them – further underscore the brutality of the Assad regime and the lengths they will go to attack and kill their own people,” Badawy added.
“This is yet another deadly weapon [Syrian President Bashar] Assad is using against his own people.”
While barrel bombs can be equipped with inflammatory, napalm-like substances, those used this week in Aleppo only utilized conventional explosives and sharp nails to maximize casualties, according to reports.
“It’s a routine weapon, and perhaps the second most common weapon used in the war,” said Jeffrey White, a defense fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, who characterized the weapon’s precision as “completely inaccurate.”
White recalls a video he was shown, taken by an Assad regime airman, lighting a barrel bomb fuse with a cigarette and casually pushing the explosives out of a helicopter door.
“Much of the fighting is in built up areas of civilian population, so civilians are going to be hit, either intentionally or by accident,” White added.
The onslaught against Aleppo occurred just as Western nations indicated to Syrian opposition leadership that peace talks next month may not lead to the removal of Assad, Reuters reported on Tuesday.
The Alawite minority, from which Assad is a part, will remain key in any transitional administration, opposition sources were allegedly told.
The message, delivered to senior members of the Syrian National Coalition at a meeting of the anti-Assad Friends of Syria alliance in London last week, was prompted by the rise of al-Qaida and other armed groups, and their takeover of a border crossing and arms depots near Turkey belonging to the moderate Free Syrian Army, the sources told Reuters.
If confirmed, those terms mark a drastic geopolitical shift in the conflict since the end of the summer, when the deaths of dozens of children by gas, executed by the Assad regime, infuriated US President Barack Obama last August. Citing the violation of an international norm against the use of chemical weapons, and the heinous practice of their use against innocent children, Obama threatened to strike the infrastructure of Assad’s military with force that would debilitate his chemical weapons arsenal.
That arsenal is being dismantled after an international accord, brokered by Russia, led Assad to sign the United Nations Chemical Weapons Convention in September and American forces to stand down.
On Tuesday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said his government was ready to aide in the destruction of Syria’s chemical arms at sea with its navy. US officials have made a similar offer and have prepared a state-of-the-art ship to help in the process.
In New York, Lavrov’s colleague at the UN said that the US had withheld information on Syrian chemical weapons use for months.
“Our requests for additional information which could prove the Syrian government involvement in the use of chemical weapons were ignored by Washington,” Russian UN ambassador Vitaly Churkin told reporters after a closed-door meeting on chief UN chemical arms investigator Åke Sellström’s final report on the August crisis.
“The lack of any proof [about Assad’s use of chemical arms] was particularly strange, because, as the public learned from the media reports based on Edward Snowden’s materials, the United States had powerful intelligence assets in Syria,” Churkin said.
The onslaught against Aleppo may suggest a regime offensive against the rebel stronghold is imminent.
Increased violence in the nation’s largest city has compounded pressures on a summit scheduled for January in Geneva, during which the international community hopes to get both sides of the conflict to the table to discuss a diplomatic end to the bitter civil war.
Last week, the US suspended all non-lethal assistance to the Supreme Military Council in the country’s north after they failed to secure a warehouse, stocked with supplies delivered by the West, from a raid by the Islamic Front.
The State Department had previously provided $260 million in non-lethal assistance to the SMC. Officials said that humanitarian aid will continue despite the suspension.
While not formally listed as a terrorist organization by Western powers, the Islamic Front is a fundamentalist opposition group in Syria without any public relationship with the US government.
On Tuesday, US Secretary of State John Kerry said that, after last week’s raid, the US might be willing to talk with the group.
“The United States has not met to date with the Islamic Front, but it’s possible it could take place,” Kerry told a news conference in Manila where he is visiting. • Reuters contributed to this report.